Immediate college enrollment rates may be on the rise, but high schools have not changed their curriculum to better prepare students for postsecondary education. The high school-to-college pipeline is responsible for 30% of college students dropping out during their first year for a variety of reasons. By year six, 56% of students have dropped out. The majority of students do not graduate in four years, whether it is due to changing majors, dropping courses, taking time off, or changing expectations of the curriculum. However, the rigor of academics is not the main problem, but rather appropriate college advising options and access to mental health resources and social support. Despite the stigma of leaving college early, help for college dropouts is available to get back on their feet, re-evaluate what they envision for themselves, and form concrete plans to actualize their dreams considering mental health challenges they may continue to face.

Why Dropping Out Can Be an Appropriate Option for Struggling Students

Young adults are funneled into college to prepare for their future but are given a two-year trial run of core classes before they have to declare a major. The way the system is set up allows for identity exploration and changing plans, yet it suggests that it understands freshmen shouldn’t be expected to commit to long-term goals. The first year is a particularly difficult transition for students moving away from their families and often their hometowns, where they are suddenly forced to become independent and make new friends. The New York Times reports that “many teenagers go away to college only to recognize — either because of their grades, their habits, their mental health or all of the above — that they’re not ready for college life.”

One of the main reasons people drop out of school is because they are struggling with medical or mental health issues and cannot access appropriate support through the school or community. The pressure of the college environment, both socially and academically, can contribute to increased stress levels and hopelessness. Additionally, college students are the most vulnerable population to sexual assault and addiction issues. If you feel that you are in crisis mode, you do not have enough social support at your school, or that time away from classes would be beneficial for your well-being, taking time off from college or looking for alternative options to traditional postsecondary education can be a good option.

Other common reasons for dropping out include lack of motivation, family emergencies, financial aid, change in career aspirations, college preparedness, lack of college value, and employment. And while these are not new issues for young adults, today’s college students are experiencing some unique and extreme challenges. 

The Effects of the Pandemic on College Students

When most students are in their senior year they dream about college tours, graduation parties, and attending the college of their choosing. They may also look forward to leaving home for the first time as they live on their own in a college dorm, having new experiences with new friends. It can be an exciting time in a young adult’s life. But current seniors, and college freshmen have had a very different college experience than they dreamed about. 

With a global pandemic, health and safety measures, and the constant change of our understanding about COVID-19 over the past year, things like college tours and graduation parties have been put on hold or completely canceled. This can play a major role in how young adults prepare for their college experience. For example, a campus tour often plays a huge role in choosing the right college. It’s not uncommon for a student to have their heart set on one campus but find in touring that they did not connect with the atmosphere or the campus culture. Through touring different colleges, they can begin to learn what aspects of college life they are most looking forward to, and which campus might be the best fit. And while they can always participate in a virtual tour, without that real-life experience, it can be difficult to make the important decision of finding a college that best suits their interests and personality. 

The pandemic is also changing how college students are experiencing their education. For some, attending on campus was not an option and instead, they had to take virtual classes, which meant missing out on those important social connections. Some students may not have even been able to leave home, which delayed their much-anticipated entry into independent adulthood. Still, other students may have bounced between in-person classes and online as schools experienced outbreaks of COVID-19 and had to enforce quarantines. With all of this in mind, it is easy to see how the pandemic has had an impact on the mental health of young adults. A survey by a Boston University researcher of nearly 33,000 college students across the country reveals the prevalence of depression and anxiety in young people continues to increase, with half of the students in fall 2020 screening positive for anxiety, depression, or both. With this additional stress on their mental health, many students are choosing to drop out or take a break from college to relieve some of the pressure they are feeling during this particular time. 

Alternative Paths for College Dropouts

The William T. Grant Foundation published a report on the “Forgotten Half,” which highlighted the prevalence of young adults who did not take a traditional college route, not just those in poverty, and ways to support them in fighting stigma and inequality and finding resources for personal development. When they published the initial report in 1988, “perhaps 1 in 10 college students could be characterized as wanting some form of mental health treatment. Now, that number is 1 in 3 and on the rise.” Whether you plan on returning to college when you feel more emotionally prepared or are looking for opportunities that are more aligned with your passions are desires, there are more opportunities than you might assume available in the community to help you rediscover what you are passionate about.

  • Focus on your mental health. Ask for help. Learn more about your triggers, coping skills, and communication style. Find the right medication, support group, or therapist. Getting help for mental health struggles is an important step in transitioning to adulthood and independent living. Prioritizing your mental health helps you to succeed in your personal life, social relationships, and career.
  • Show yourself radical compassion. Remind yourself that you did the best you could with the support that you had while you were in school. College is overwhelming for most students. It is not a reflection of your capability to handle it. You are not a failure for taking time off or deciding not to return to school. You are not a disappointment to yourself or your parents. You deserve to take care of your needs and put your health and well-being first.
  • Take a gap semester or year. Dropping out does not have to be a permanent decision, but time away from school helps you to better understand what it is you want to do. Take advantage of time off to take care of yourself and to challenge yourself to rebuild confidence and motivation to go where you want to go. Students who have taken a gap year have higher graduation rates and better grades than students who jump right into college.
  • Look for transitional programs that will offer support and guidance in deciding where you want to go next. While the future may feel overwhelming, you are at a critical time in your life to pay attention to what you need and to decide how to better meet those needs. A transitional program can provide you with the structure and skills you need to help you make that decision. 
  • Continue learning in some capacity. Learn a new skill. Pick up a new hobby. Read about topics you’re interested in. Not only will you learn new skills around a subject that you’re already interested in, but you may discover how to apply those passions towards your education or career in the future. When you are not learning things assigned to you, you have more time to learn about yourself and what you like.
  • Decide long term goals, both career wise and regarding your personal development. Dropping out of college does not have to disrupt future goals, but it may reroute them. It is natural to feel directionless and unprepared for the future during this transition, but you are not alone.

blueFire PulsaR can help

blueFire PulsaR offers co-ed adventure-based wilderness therapy for young adults 18-28 struggling with the transition to adulthood.  Our students struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges, including anxiety, depression, motivation, trauma, and substance abuse that have affected their ability to achieve success in school and in other areas of their life. We help college dropouts rediscover their inner spark that fuels their motivation and confidence to pursue their interests.

At blueFire PulsaR, clients have the chance to gain a better sense of themselves as individuals and begin forming goals with the guidance of therapeutic professionals. Through exciting adventure-based activities like mountaineering and bouldering, clients step outside of their comfort zone and build translatable skills such as leadership, teamwork, and accountability. As clients take part in wilderness programming, we are able to assess their needs and begin to form a plan for transitioning away from past negative behaviors. Our transition planning helps identify key points as your child heads home and uses the wilderness to gain the confidence needed to no longer make the same mistakes. For more information please call (208) 269-7554.

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